23 April 2015

Are Cop Cams So Bad?

David Brooks raises some objections:
All these concentric circles of privacy depend on some level of shrouding. They depend on some level of secrecy and awareness of the distinction between the inner privileged space and the outer exposed space. They depend on the understanding that what happens between us stays between us.
Cop-cams chip away at that. The cameras will undermine communal bonds. Putting a camera on someone is a sign that you don’t trust him, or he doesn’t trust you. When a police officer is wearing a camera, the contact between an officer and a civilian is less likely to be like intimate friendship and more likely to be oppositional and transactional. Putting a camera on an officer means she is less likely to cut you some slack, less likely to not write that ticket, or to bend the regulations a little as a sign of mutual care.
Of course, it’s not like people trust the cops as it is.  Trust has to be continually earned through consistent good behavior, and cops just haven’t been doing that for some time, what with their increasing militarization, no-knock raids, and accidental shootings.  In short, cops act like small-dick cowards with military complexes who think their badges make them badass alpha males that everyone must respect.  Consequently people can’t stand being around them because they tend to abuse their authority, which leads to distrust.  The cop cams are merely a reflection of that which has already occurred.  More to the point, cop cams will help to rebuild trust because they will incentivize cops to be on their best behavior, which would be a marked change from the status quo.
Putting a camera on the police officer means that authority resides less in the wisdom and integrity of the officer and more in the videotape. During a trial, if a crime isn’t captured on the tape, it will be presumed to never have happened.

Of course, it would help if cops had wisdom and integrity in the first place.  That a mechanical recording device with a host of potential for mechanical failure is considered more reliable than the average cop should indicate just how far the police have fallen in prestige and trustworthiness.
Cop-cams will insult families. It’s worth pointing out that less than 20 percent of police calls involve felonies, and less than 1 percent of police-citizen contacts involve police use of force. Most of the time cops are mediating disputes, helping those in distress, dealing with the mentally ill or going into some home where someone is having a meltdown. When a police officer comes into your home wearing a camera, he’s trampling on the privacy that makes a home a home. He’s recording people on what could be the worst day of their lives, and inhibiting their ability to lean on the officer for care and support.
This is actually a pretty fair point.  However, there is little reason to believe that cops are the only people who mediate a conflict.
Cop-cams insult individual dignity because the embarrassing things recorded by them will inevitably get swapped around. The videos of the naked crime victim, the berserk drunk, the screaming maniac will inevitably get posted online — as they are already. With each leak, culture gets a little coarser. The rules designed to keep the videos out of public view will inevitably be eroded and bent.
This is kind of an interesting point, because Brooks spends his whole time arguing that cops are mostly trustworthy and cams will undermine the trust between cops and civilians.  Now he argues that cops shouldn’t wear cams because they can’t be trusted to handle the video with propriety.

In spite of that, I can’t really say that concerns over individual dignity are that big a deal for a couple of reasons.  First, if all “colorful” incidents recorded by cop cams make it to YouTube, it’s unlikely that there will be as big effect as Brooks assumes.  Time, like all resources, is finite and so it is unlikely that any given video of perps behaving badly will get a lot of views because few people will find it worth the time.

However, these sorts of videos will be locally popular among the perps’ social circle, which should lead to greater mockery and shaming of the perps.  Like sitting in stocks, this consequence will help to marginally reduce crime by encouraging shamable assholes to put a little more thought into their actions prior to doing something.

Moreover, unless the perp is a criminal, it is unlikely that his instant celeb that comes from being posted online from a cop cam will result in any major long-term negative feedbacks.  Humans have short memories, so unless someone tries to make a perp’s post-incident life a living hell, the controversy should blow over quickly, relatively speaking.

In sum, there really is not much of a reason to oppose cop cams, at least for the time being.  Once the cops have earned back the trust of the people, then we can reconsider the costs and benefits of demonstrating trust.


  1. "Putting a camera on an officer means she is less likely to cut you some slack, less likely to not write that ticket, or to bend the regulations a little as a sign of mutual care."

    I may be mistaken, but I thought that the lapel cams are only reviewed when an altercation occurs.

    That said, I'd say its worthy exchange. Living another day or saving 100$ on a ticket they let you go on...

    As you said, until the cops have earned back our trust, there isn't enough reasons to oppose cop cams.

  2. Are cop cams going to solve any problems? If a cop has a video of a black guy attacking him before he shoots him are the natives of the urban jungle going to care? No. They'll still say he wuz a good boy turning his life around. There's no point in further degrading our privacy, blacks don't believe any crime warrants a shooting or even an arrest for that matter!